Gary should take hint, end war over pensions


December 14, 1997|By BRIAN SULLAM

WHEN JOHN G. Gary took office as Anne Arundel County executive three years ago, he was perceived as a right-wing ideologue.

He earned this reputation because of his propensity as a state delegate to fight battles in the General Assembly which he had no chance to win but which allowed him to make a political statement to his conservative constituents.

As county executive, however, Mr. Gary has governed pragmatically. For the most part, he has been more interested in solving problems than in making empty political gestures.

For example, Mr. Gary frequently criticizes the management of county schools for wasting public money, yet he continues to increase the amount designated for schools in his budgets to meet the county's educational needs.

Although he has spent almost 20 years honing his reputation as a fiscal conservative, he did not hesitate to commit last year's $12 million budget surplus to education and drug treatment -- typically programs that conservatives love to bash as wasteful spending.

However, on the issue of whether to try to take back the pensions of 93 former elected and appointed county officials who received generous retirement packages in a 1989 bill, Mr. Gary displayed the single-minded fixation that helped earn him his earlier reputation.

For more than three years, Mr. Gary has crusaded on this issue.

He has been rebuffed at nearly every turn.

When the U.S. Supreme Court refused last week to consider the county's appeal of a 1996 U.S. District Court decision that upheld those pensions, the nation's highest court may have done Mr. Gary a favor. He can abandon this pursuit, which was doomed from the start, and move on to more important matters.

When the County Council passed legislation in 1995 to reform the bloated pension system, Mr. Gary made his political point. The legislation correctly repealed the 1989 bill that gave appointed and elected officials extremely generous pension increases by lowering the retirement age to 50 and increasing their benefits by 25 percent.

Passage of the bill signified that the era of big government spending was over, and Anne Arundel's current and future appointed and elected officials would have to make do with less generous retirements.

Fighting waste with waste?

But when he decided to try to retrieve benefits that were being paid -- or promised -- to retired personnel, Mr. Gary was out to make a political statement of a different nature. He wanted to extract a monetary pound of flesh from these people who he felt hoodwinked the system.

If ensuring the wise use of public money was indeed at the heart of this effort, Mr. Gary violated his own precept. He has devoted a disproportionate amount of money, time and attention in this fruitless pursuit.

Cost-free appeals?

Mr. Gary claims that the appeals cost the county nothing because they were handled by county attorneys already on the payroll. Didn't these attorneys have to neglect other work to continue to litigate this issue? The litigation was not without cost. More than $25,000 was spent on expert witnesses.

Mr. Gary also hired Sovereign Investigations, run by Kevin Keane, a retired police officer, to find out whether public officials had conspired to hide the real cost of the pensions. Mr. Keane and John R. Greiber, an attorney hired to advise Mr. Keane, used county funds to travel to Florida in December 1995 in a vain attempt to find incriminating evidence.

This effort cost the taxpayers $10,620.

Mr. Gary claims his doggedness was about correcting mistakes made by a previous council.

Fix already made

By passing the pension reform legislation, he accomplished that goal. The county reduced its contributions to employee pensions by $3 million last year alone.

His attempts to prove that officials criminally conspired to approve these pensions demonstrates a unthinking righteousness more characteristic of a zealot than a pragmatic politician.

While Mr. Gary may be angry that these officials received extremely generous pensions, he would have been better off to have dropped the matter. As it is now, these officials can characterize his campaign against them as a mean-spirited effort to destroy their reputations and rack up political points.

The other issue is that it is bad public policy for laws to be retroactive. The pension reform legislation prevented the same type of abuses from continuing in the future, but the effort to turn back the clock was wrong.

What would John Gary think if a future county executive claimed that Mr. Gary's wife, Ruthanne, who was cited in a salary survey as being overpaid for her county position, would have to return her "excess" pay?

That would be absurd -- as was much of Mr. Gary's campaign to roll back these pensions.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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